Civil rights legend John Lewis: ‘We can change things’

John Lewis hopes his autobiographical graphic novel “March” will inspire a generation of young people to transform society just as he and other civil rights activists did 50 years ago.

“I hope they will find a way to get in the way – find a way to get into good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said. “’March’ Book 1 and Book 2 are saying to all of us that we can do it, we can change things.”

Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, left, interviews John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell on the IU Auditorium stage.

Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, left, interviews John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell on the IU Auditorium stage.

Lewis and co-authors Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell spoke to 1,630 people Monday night at the IU Auditorium as part of the Power of Words series presented by the Monroe County Public Library and Friends of the Library. Indiana Memorial Union Board co-sponsored the event.

A Georgia congressman since 1987, Lewis was a key leader of the civil rights movement. He participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Tenn., was beaten and arrested on the 1961 Freedom Rides and organized and spoke at the August 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C.

Having grown up the child of sharecroppers in the segregated South when very few African-Americans were able to vote in much of Alabama and Mississippi, he is quick to celebrate racial progress.

“We live in a different America, a better America,” he said. “But we’re not there yet.”

“March” Book 1 and Book 2 use comic book form to tell the story of Lewis’ life and the civil rights struggle from his childhood in rural Alabama through the March on Washington. A third book is scheduled for publication next year.

The idea came from Aydin, a comics fan and a member of Lewis’ congressional staff. When he mentioned during a meeting that he planned to attend a comic book convention, Lewis recalled that a comic book about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott had been influential in raising awareness among young people in the early years of the civil rights movement.

Aydin began pestering Lewis to write a comic book about the movement, and eventually he said yes.

“He said, ‘OK, let’s do it. But only if you write it with me,’” Aydin said. “And that moment changed my life.”

Nate Powell, an artist who lives in Bloomington, joined the project, providing dynamic illustrations that give cinematic immediacy to the larger-than-life figures and events of the civil rights movement. Powell said he follows Lewis’ mantra: “Tell the whole story. Make it real. Make it plain.”

Book 3 of “March,” the authors said, will take the story to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., credited with inspiring passage of the Voting Rights Act. In March, President Barack Obama joined Lewis and others in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march and rallying support for voting rights.

“The vote is precious,” Lewis said Monday. “The vote is almost sacred given what people did to win it. It’s the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”

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